Professor Ryan Wheeler wants the course to maintain its “fun-ucational” atmosphere. Courtesy of Ryan Wheeler

Nicolas Brown and Ryan Wheeler are quite the dynamic duo.

Brown, a Ph.D. candidate and doctoral teaching lecturer, and Wheeler, a Ph.D. student and graduate instructor, are the creators of Creative Writing: Comic Books & Graphic Fiction. Offered initially last year, the extended education course was so popular that it’s back for another go-round this summer.

“In terms of comics-specific knowledge, we offer what is essentially a crash course bootcamp,” Brown said.

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Brown said they quickly filled all 20 seats the first time and expect to do the same again.

Brown is an expert in comics, currently working on a comic book-themed dissertation at TCU. He moved to Fort Worth from Cleveland, Ohio, the birthplace of Superman, as if he was born to specialize in comic books.

The framework for the course is built around the modern popularity of superheroes from both comics and now film adaptations of the books. With roughly a century of superheroes to work with – assuming your superhero timeline begins in 1938 with Superman – Brown found that condensing the subject matter was a herculean task and sought help.  

“When I realized I didn’t want to explicitly teach superheroes, I turned to my own interest in myth and folklore as a way to approach teaching comics,” Brown said. “This is where Ryan enters the equation. I knew that I wanted her to co-teach the course with me because she has some studio art ability and understands visual composition, but she shares a similar interest in myth and folklore.”

Wheeler is currently researching improving contemporary pedagogy through evaluating and evolving ancient rhetorical practices and teaching the pedagogy of storytelling.

Brown credits TCU’s Center for Digital Expression for helping him launch the course. “As the former assistant director,” he said, “I was encouraged to propose a course based on my specialties, comics, studio art.”

In addition to her research and coursework, Wheeler also teaches freshman composition and an intermediate argument course. Both “assess the value of story and intentional writing strategies,” she said.

Brown and Wheeler are tag-teaming once again to co-teach their students the mechanical elements of comics production, ranging from scripting and drafting to inking and coloring –– as well as what makes for a compelling story and hero.

“This class emphasizes the archetypal hero’s journey and the narrative structures that we share across cultures,” Brown said, adding that he and Wheeler introduced students to the theories of Joseph Campbell, an early comics analyst. “We use these conversations as a springboard for creating their own stories about heroes of their own creation.” 

Brown said the course also touches briefly on lettering, which can be done either by hand or, as he prefers, using Adobe Illustrator.

“The kids we taught last summer came up with incredibly creative stories, heroes, and villains,” Wheeler said. “Some of their stories coincided with our comic book and movie/book universes, and some kids created brand new worlds for their characters.”

Wheeler said the only class rule is no recreations of existing characters or fan fiction.

Brown has proposed a similar course to be taught at TCU at the college level. “While I’d love to teach a full comics theory course to kids, I don’t think they’d enjoy trudging through gutters and closure and arthrology in the same ways that I do,” he said.

Instead of full theory, Brown is basing his new course on this extended-education class. Brown will co-teach the new course this fall with Jason Helms. “This course,” Brown said, “dives deeper into comics production than we are able to in a week-long extended-ed course and exposes students to both the theories informing our academic understanding of the comics medium and the processes required to take an idea and make it into a finished comic book.”

Wheeler said that she and Brown want to “maintain the ‘fun-ucational’ atmosphere of the course this summer with more jams and Marvel jokes. We’re looking forward to seeing what stories they come up with. This process of self-discovery meets creative expression is really awesome to witness.”